Instant messaging: The problems of success

Organisations may want to think very hard about archiving instant messages, just like they should have thought about archiving email. Ask Bill Gates how much fun it was to be asked during his depositions about email he sent in a fit of peak years before.

          Instant messaging is coming on like gangbusters in enterprise networks, and with its success come some of the burdens of that success. Burdens that include deciding whether to monitor or archive messages and the disruption of organisational boundaries.

          The number two link under "other top news" on the website last week was a story titled "Interest in IM monitoring on the rise." The story's subtitle was "Instant messages aren't always fleeting."

          The story was mostly about companies starting to realise that they need to start treating instant messages like email when it comes to corporate policy. If the corporation archives all email to and from employees, maybe they should do the same with instant messages, which are starting to replace email and phone calls in a number of organisations.

          Note that an organisation may well want to think quite hard about archiving all instant messages, just like they should have thought about archiving all email messages. Ask Bill Gates how much fun it was to be asked during his depositions about email he had sent in a fit of peak years before. If you do not archive the email, then you cannot be forced to produce it if you manage to get embroiled in a lawsuit some time in the future.

          I'm not a real fan of the archiving of employee communications. It seems to be just another dehumanising step along the path toward corporate ownership of employees and a potential gold mine for opposing attorneys. But I do understand that some employees are not ideal corporate or real-world citizens, and at least some monitoring too often is warranted, but I'd personally rather that one of the key-word scanning tools be used than that all email, and instant messages, be saved forever. These tools can scan for things such as "guaranteed profit" in email sent by brokers to their clients and archive (and block) those letters.

          Instant messaging is continuing the flattening of organisational structures that email started. It's just too easy to send an instant message to anyone bypassing "normal" hierarchies.

          Another story on a few days ago explored the use of instant messaging in the US Navy, where sailors are sending messages between themselves, even when they are in different ships, and sometimes navies. The navies of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Germany all use the same instant messaging software.

          The writer seemed to think that cutting through the chain of command was a good thing, but I'm a bit worried about the security implications of a supply clerk telling someone he thinks is a supply clerk in another ship that they are stocking up on MREs.

          The use of instant messaging in business is yet another case where real change has happened without the involvement of corporate planners because of the ease of innovation over the internet. People just started using it, and the planners are only starting to catch up. This is not the last time this will happen. (In case it's not clear, innovation is a good thing.)

          Disclaimer: Because "instant" and "Harvard" are not related concepts the above is my own ramble.

          Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems.

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